The medievalism in Tissot’s work can be attributed partially to the influence of the the towns in which he grew up, and partially to the popularity of the work of the Belgian painter Hendrik Leys (1815 – 1869). Leys’ painting, The Trental Mass of Berthal de Haze – replete with numerous characters enacting a historical drama against a detailed architectural background – won a gold medal at the 1855 Paris International Exhibition.
In 1859, Tissot traveled to Antwerp, augmenting his art education by taking lessons in Leys’ studio. There he made friends with a young Dutch art student working with Leys, Lourens Tadema (1836 – 1912; the painter moved to London in 1870 and restyled himself Lawrence Alma-Tadema). Working with Leys was, according to Alma-Tadema, “A very beautiful and interesting task [that had a] direct bearing upon my own art tendencies.” Tissot must have had similar feelings. Studying under Leys, who himself imitated painting styles he admired, Tissot’s work now began to combine academic technique, minute detail, historical accuracy and a dark paint surface with scenes from Goethe’s Faust, one of the greatest works of German literature.
German Romanticism, especially Goethe’s 1808 version of the legend of Faust, was popular at this time. Tadema even had painted a water-color, Faust and Marguerite (Op. VII, 1857). Charles Gounod’s grand opera version of Faust premiered at the Théatre-Lyrique in Paris on March 19, 1859.
Often overlooked in commentaries on Tissot’s adoption of Goethe’s Faust for subject matter is the work of painter Ary Scheffer (1795 – 1858). Scheffer, who had Dutch origins but painted in France, enjoyed great success in Paris with his series of paintings based on Faust: Faust in his Study, Faust Doubting, Faust Holding the Cup, Marguerite at the Sabbat, Marguerite Leaving Church, Marguerite at the Spinning Wheel, Faust and Marguerite in the Garden (1846), and the most popular of all, Marguerite at the Fountain (1852).
Scheffer’s biographer wrote of the profound experience felt by readers of Goethe’s tragic drama in verse, and its potential in the hands of an artist: “Profoundly as it explores the mysterious relations between the sensual and the intellectual natures of man, whilst exhibiting the varied workings of human passions and weakness, Faust deals likewise with the tragic element, in a way to touch the deepest chords of sympathy.”
As the Salon was held biennially after 1855, the next was in 1861. For the Salon that year, Tissot had six paintings accepted, including three based on Goethe’s Faust: The Meeting of Faust and Marguerite, Faust and Marguerite in the Garden, and Marguerite at the Service. He had imitated Leys’ fifteenth-century costumes, historical architecture and meticulous details.
A critic of Tissot’s medieval scenes wrote, “Stop thief! Leys could shout to the Tissot painting; he took my individuality, my skin, like a thief at night carries off a piece of clothing left on a chair.” But the 24-year-old Tissot had shrewd instincts: his paintings combined the popular style of Leys with the tense Faust subjects of current interest, and painted quite differently by Scheffer.
Tissot and his painting, Le Recontre de Faust et de Marguerite (The Meeting of Faust and Marguerite) attracted the attention of the Comte de Nieuwerkerke, Director-General of Museums, who purchased the painting by an order of July 17, 1860 on behalf of the government for the Luxembourg Museum for 5,000 francs. (The Luxembourg was founded in 1818 to display works by living artists, who could not be exhibited at the Louvre). This was a huge honor for the very young James Tissot. Nieuwerkerke was the man to impress – thanks to his mistress, Princess Mathilde (the Emperor’s first cousin) he was in charge of the Louvre, the Luxembourg, and the Salon. Le Recontre de Faust et de Marguerite was exhibited at the Salon in 1861.
Tissot’s mother died on May 4, 1861. There is no record of whether she knew that her son’s artistic talent, which she had believed in, had earned him the honor of having a painting included in the pantheon of French art. But she left him an inheritance, and though he remained in debt through at least 1863, he set off for Milan, Venice, and Florence.
© Copyright Lucy Paquette 2012. All rights reserved.